North Texas head coach Dan McCarney surveyed his seniors not long after it became apparent that the Mean Green would play in a bowl game for the first time since 2004 to see where they hoped to end up.
Those players got their wish on Sunday when the Mean Green received and accepted an invitation to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
UNT will face UNLV at 11 a.m. on New Year’s Day at the Cotton Bowl in a game broadcast on ESPNU.
The Hawaii Bowl and the Armed Forces Bowl were bantered about as possible destinations for UNT over the last few weeks, which prompted McCarney to question to his players about where they hoped to play a historic game in program history.
It turned out grass skirts were not nearly as appealing as what amounts to home turf.
“I was blown away,” McCarney said. “It was 100 percent that they wanted to go to the Heart of Dallas Bowl because all of their friends, family and high school coaches could come watch them play.
“That gives me a good feeling that our guys want to be there.”
Receiving an invitation to the bowl is just the latest milestone in a breakout season for UNT in the third year of McCarney’s tenure. The Mean Green (8-4) came into the year tied with UAB for the nation’s sixth longest bowl drought at eight seasons and had suffered eight straight losing campaigns.
The Mean Green last played in a bowl game in 2004, when it lost the last of four consecutive New Orleans Bowls.
UNT snapped its bowl drought by winning six of its last seven games, a run that began with with a win over Middle Tennessee on Oct. 12.
The Mean Green suffered a late setback, losing to UTSA in the second-to-last game of the regular season before coming back to hammer Tulsa 42-10.
The goal of playing in a bowl game was what drove UNT during that run.
“No one on the team has ever sniffed a bowl other than the coaches and some of the guys who transferred in. It [UNT’s bowl destination] doesn’t matter,” senior running back Brandin Byrd said late in the season. “We just want to go.”
UNT will face a team in a similar situation in UNLV, which won its last two games to finish 7-5 and earn its first bowl berth since 2000.
Rebels quarterback Caleb Herring has thrown for 2,522 yards and 22 touchdowns, while wide receiver Devante Davis, a Houston native, has 77 catches for 1,194 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns.
McCarney said that UNT’s coaches have not had a chance to study UNLV but expect the Rebels to pose a challenge.
Bobby Hauck is in his fourth season at the school after leading Montana to three Football Championship Subdivision title games.
In an interesting twist, UNLV President Neal Smatresk is set to take over in the same capacity at UNT.
“It will be interesting to see what the new president wants to do coming from UNLV to North Texas,” McCarney said. “Hopefully he will have at least one green and white pompom in the stands.”
McCarney said playing in a New Year’s Day game is an important opportunity for UNT. The Mean Green also played on New Year’s Day in 1948 in the Salad Bowl, a precursor to the Fiesta Bowl.
“There is something really prestigious about playing on New Year’s Day,” McCarney said. “My staff and players feel the same way.”
The Heart of Dallas Bowl will be the eighth bowl UNT played in its history and the closest in terms of proximity to Denton.
“I am hoping that the Mean Green nation will really respond and come support this team,” McCarney said. “You build a reputation and a tradition with how your fans will travel. It’s been a while since we have been to a bowl game. We need to refresh everyone’s memories around the country that North Texas will travel.”
Those fans, not to mention the relatives and friends of UNT’s players won’t have far to go.
That’s the scenario UNT’s players were hoping for all along.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.